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TELEVISION REVIEW

'Tsunami' is awash with plot missteps

"Tsunami, the Aftermath" is quite an achievement. This two-part HBO miniseries manages to turn the 2004 disaster that trampled the shorelines of South Asia into an empty bore. It reduces the loss of some 227,000 lives to the shabbily scripted melodrama of a very few. And, with its mostly British cast, the miniseries magically remakes the tsunami into a Western tragedy, a sort of "holiday from hell" for those who happened to be vacationing in Thailand at the time.

Clearly, this misstep is not the result of laziness. Lots of work went into evoking visual realism in the miniseries, an HBO-BBC coproduction that premieres tomorrow night at 8. The vividly re-created ruins -- buildings squashed but for one tenacious wall or post, masses of trees bowed and broken -- speak louder of the unmitigated devastation than all the dialogue put together. Whenever the characters are shown wandering silently through the miles of collapsed civilization, you get a sense of the magnitude of the human toll.

And the most disturbing sight may not be the crushed earth: Throughout the miniseries, which concludes next Sunday, the gorgeous green ocean sits by the ruins, calmly, almost mockingly, unaware.

But Abi Morgan's useless script undermines the potent imagery. "Tsunami, the Aftermath" is true to its title, in that the wave itself makes only a cameo appearance. Morgan and director Bharat Nalluri are not out to build an action-disaster scenario with digital effects and heroic efforts on the order of "Titanic." They want to show how sudden and fleeting the tsunami was, and then focus on the hours and days of unarticulated grief, communal confusion, and pointless wandering that ensued. But they give their ensemble of lost characters dialogue filled with bland abstractions and cliches of existential despair, and they leave plot logic by the wayside.

The most central of the survivors, all of whom are fictional, are British vacationers Ian (Chiwetel Ejiofor ) and Susie (Sophie Okonedo ). When the wave hits, Susie is safely away on a scuba-diving excursion, and when she returns she begins her search for Ian and their daughter, Martha. Susie and Ian reconnect, and together they go through familiar stages of anger and sorrow as they look for Martha amid the chaos. As written, Ian and Susie aren't distinct; they're simply distraught parents. To their credit, Ejiofor and Okonedo do an extraordinary job of investing these types with emotional substance.

Another generic subplot features Tim Roth as a British reporter whose cynicism evolves into righteous fury. He is changed as he learns about ignored early warnings of the tsunami and the greedy hotel entrepreneurs who are about to exploit the locals.

And speaking of the locals, the miniseries barely recognizes them, despite its token concern about land scams.

One of the subplots follows the displacement of a Thai waiter named Than (Samrit Machielsen), but his tale is so sketchy it doesn't quite register across the length of the miniseries. More time is spent on the British mother (Gina McKee), who must decide whether or not to have her son's leg amputated, and her tense interactions with a British official (Hugh Bonneville). This is a glaring error in judgment for a docudramatic production that is trying to resist the sleek conventions of Western entertainment.

"Tsunami, the Aftermath" doesn't contain many characters, but they spend so much time saying nothing and looking unremittingly upset that, except for Ian and Susie, they begin to seem like empty vessels. And when they do speak, they utter such generic lines as, "There is nothing natural about any of this" and "How can you believe in a God who can do this?" Surely the aftermath of the tsunami wasn't so vapid.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit boston.com/ae/tv/blog/.

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